Corn Snake Care Sheet

By Kathy Love - CornUtopia

Introduction

Corn Snakes are the most popular pet snakes in the world.  Their perfect size – not so small as to be delicate, and not too large as to be difficult or dangerous to handle – is only the beginning.  Combine that with their easily met husbandry requirements and beautiful and varied colors and patterns, and corns are assured a top place in herpetoculture for many generations to come. 

Names

Corn snake is the most popular common name, but they are also sometimes called red rat snakes.  Traditionally known by the scientific (Latin) name of Elaphe guttata guttata, relatively recent taxonomic work has given them the newer name of Pantherophis guttatus, which seems to have gained widespread acceptance now.  You may encounter either name in books or on forums.

Range & Origin

Native to the southeastern United States, a small population exists as far north as the southern part of New Jersey, and as far west as Kentucky and Louisiana.  Further west, closely related species are found, but they lack the bright colors and popularity of corns.  Color varies from region to region, with some areas known for giving rise to particular variants such as the Miami phase from southeastern Florida, and the Okeetee, from southern coastal South Carolina.  Keep in mind that the original, wild-caught specimens from those areas are not likely to look quite as spectacular as those selectively bred over many generations of domestic breeding. 

Adult Size

Males average somewhat larger than females, very rarely reaching 6 feet and possibly weighing as much as 2 pounds.  4 – 4.5 feet is a much more likely adult size, especially for females, but specimens as small as 2.5 feet can sometimes be large enough to reproduce. 

Life Span

Many corns in captivity have lived into their 20s.  The record is 32 years.  A few females have reproduced in their mid-teens, but fertility often decreases significantly after 10 years of age.  A retired, breeder “teenaged” corn can still provide many years of enjoyment as a pet with gentle and consistent care. 

Enclosures

Hatchling corns are usually started in an escape-proof, plastic container such as a clear shoebox.  It is important that they have places to hide and feel secure since most baby corns in the wild are eaten before they reach adulthood.  Babies that don’t try to hide were removed from the gene pool a long time ago. 

Adults require a minimum of a 20-gallon long aquarium size (12 inches by 30 inches) – but bigger is better.  All corns are escape artists!  It is very important to provide a secure cage, and to remember to tightly close it.  Locks are important if there are children or others in the household who may forget to close it responsibly after each opening.

Substrate

Most breeders prefer shredded aspen bedding.  It is very soft and absorbent, and not likely to cause injury if a small amount is ingested.  Juvenile corns love to burrow in it and seem to gain a sense of security hiding beneath it. 

Temperature and Humidity

Well-established corns can withstand chilly temperatures of 50°F, or even less, when brumating without food or during shipping.  But active, feeding corns should have a warm spot of the mid 80s°F available to help digest food.  It doesn’t matter if the warm spot is provided by a basking light (turn it off at night to provide day and night intervals) or an under-tank heating pad.  The important thing is to use a thermometer to measure the temperature INSIDE the warm hide box – not on the glass sides of the cage!  A thermometer with a probe will allow you to check the temperature where the snake actually spends its time.  It is not important to check 24 / 7.  New set-ups should be checked frequently – perhaps a couple of times per day.  Once well established, checking at different times of the day once per week should be sufficient.  The rest of the cage can be normal room temperature   usually in the 70s Fahrenheit.

Be sure to provide two identical hides – one warm, and one cool.  Two choices insure that your pet will not choose the best hiding spot instead of the proper temperature. 

I never measure humidity.  The best way to know if the humidity is proper is to wait for the snake to shed.  It is best to add a little damp moss in the hide box when its eyes go ‘blue’ a week or more before shedding.  If the snake sheds in one piece, the humidity level is fine.  If the shed is in many pieces, or sticks to the snake, it is too dry.  As long as there is no sign of mold or fungus in the cage, it is probably not too wet.  Remove the damp moss between sheds and let it dry.  You can reuse it for the next shed, or replace it. 

Social Structure

Corns are not really social creatures.  They may occasionally share a hiding spot in nature, but are generally solitary except during breeding season.  Housing more than one per cage causes stress, and may lead to stress-related problems that usually affect feeding and digestion.  Beginners should especially avoid this easily-prevented stress by keeping each snake alone except during breeding attempts. 

Diet

Mice and other rodents of the appropriate size are the most common food items.  Most babies will eat newborn ‘pinkie’ mice.  If they won’t accept frozen / thawed pinks within a few weeks, it may be necessary to start hatchlings on live pinkies.  They usually switch easily after a few live meals as they begin to recognize food by smell.   Bigger corns often love chicks and other birds as well as rodents, and rarely refuse frozen, well- thawed items.  A good feeding schedule may be every 5 – 7 days for babies and yearlings, to once per 7 – 10 days for adults.  The food item for new pets should barely make the snake’s belly bulge to avoid stress-related regurgitation.  Once well-established, the food item should make a definite but not huge bulge after it has been consumed. 

Digestion problems are the most common symptoms of stress in corns.  If a snake is stressed by incorrect temperatures, handling, shedding, cagemates, incorrect husbandry, or any other stressor, it is likely to either refuse food or to regurgitate before digestion is complete.  Regurgitation is very serious, and repeated episodes can lead to death.  Thus, it is important to avoid feeding after regurgitation until you have read the “regurge protocol”, available here: http://www.cornsnakes.com/forums/showthread.php?t=28342

Cleaning

Aspen bedding is very easy to spot-clean because the moisture and feces tend to stay in one spot.  You can pick out the dirty spots a few days after feeding, and replace the entire bedding when it appears or smells dirty.  Timing will depend on the size of the cage, snake, frequency of feeding, etc.  As a general rule, corns are less messy than king snakes, and corn snake feces tend to be a little drier and seldom smeared over the whole cage.

Handling

It is important to realize that a new acquisition is under a lot of stress adjusting to its new home.  Handling is an added stress that is better left to a well-adjusted snake.  Try to handle baby snakes as little as possible the first few weeks.  Only later slowly increase handling to short but frequent handling sessions.  Remember that babies assume you are a giant predator, and that they will react accordingly.  Don’t be surprised when they behave defensively or try to hide.  As they grow, they have fewer natural predators and less reason to hide.  With gentle and consistent handling, most corn snakes will grow up as gentle as any cat or dog.  But patience is just as much a virtue in baby snake training as in puppy or kitten training.  Most adult corns don’t mind being handled for a few hours per day once they are used to it.  Try to avoid handling during the week or two prior to shedding because some snakes are more nervous at that time, plus it is also possible to tear the skin prematurely. 

Conclusion

As you can see, corn snakes have only a few definite requirements.  But once those requirements are met, well-established corns are usually as easy to keep, and as problem free, as any pet reptile available. 

This overview should provide enough information to get started.  There are many sources for further study, such as my book, or the following forums:

www.Cornsnakes.com

http://www.cccorns.com/forum/

http://forums.kingsnake.com/forum.php?catid=70

About the Author

I have been interested in reptiles and other animals since childhood.  Reptile keeping began in earnest for me during high school back in Wisconsin in the late 1960s.  The 1970s saw me running a mobile reptile exhibit, where I met and married Bill Love.  We settled in Florida, where more reptiles were kept and bred.  I worked as a nurse for a while to fund our fledgling reptile business in the 1980s.  Together, we wrote The Corn Snake Manual, and later, Corn Snakes, the Comprehensive Owner’s Guide , available here: http://cornutopia.com/Corn%20Utopia%20on%20the%20Web/%20BOOKS%20POSTERS%20herp%20for%20sale%20Cornutopia%20corn%20snakes%20cornsnakes.htm

 

If you are interested in reading more about my history, you can find details here:

http://cornutopia.com/Corn%20Utopia%20on%20the%20Web/%20ABOUT%20KATHY%20LOVE%20Cornutopia%20corn%20snakes%20cornsnakes.htm

 

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